Sip “the king of grapes” at these accessible stops.
More than 90 percent of the Napa Valley’s 500-plus wineries produce Cabernet Sauvignon, making the valley a great place to sip “the king of grapes.” Some valley Cab houses are so exclusive they sell their wines on an allotment basis to subscribers and aren’t open to the public even by appointment. Luckily, that still leaves hundreds of wineries large and small where you can sample superb Napa Valley Cabernet. At the accessible stops described below, you can do a straightforward tasting of three to five wines, or go all wonky at deep dives into topics like soil and climate, oak aging, and the differences between valley-floor and mountain fruit.
Covid-19 notes: As wineries began to reopen in June 2020 following the relaxation of shelter-in-place regulations, most (including all 10 listed below) began receiving visitors by appointment only. Same-day appointments are sometimes possible, but it’s best to reserve space a day or more ahead. Some of the private, socially distanced tastings described here may evolve or go temporarily on hiatus; check winery websites for the latest offerings as well as guidelines regarding party size, mask-wearing, and related matters. When making reservations, you’ll be required in some cases to sign a waiver absolving the winery of liability for any subsequent Covid-19 issues.
The family of the late Peter Mondavi Sr. operates Charles Krug Winery, which bills itself as the Napa Valley’s oldest operating winery. Founded in 1861 by Charles Krug, a Prussian immigrant, this respected producer with a fascinating history specializes in Bordeaux-style reds. Winemaker Stacy Clark’s 100% Cabernet Sauvignons and blends, many from grapes grown in the St. Helena, Yountville, and Howell Mountain subappellations, are the strong suit along with Merlot. Clark also makes a Clarksburg Chenin Blanc and a Carneros Chardonnay, but the reds receive the most attention. The Estate Tasting always includes a small-lot Cabernet.
Why go: Napa Valley’s oldest operating winery; fascinating history; high-quality Cabernets.
Cathy Corison, among the modern Napa Valley’s first women owner-winemakers, makes 100% Cabernets that age with increasing elegance. They’re the kind you can’t wait to open because you know they’ll be great, but when you do you feel guilty imagining what another year or two (or five) in the bottle might yield. Corison Winery is best known for three satisfyingly complex yet restrained Cabernets. Its namesake winemaker maintains that conditions in the source Rutherford and St. Helena subappellations are so favorable for bringing Cabernet grapes to proper ripeness that blending in Cabernet Franc, Merlot, or other Bordeaux varietals isn’t necessary. Among the joys of the Corison Library Experience, one of three offerings at the winery, is tasting that consistency, comparing the newest vintage to its older counterparts.
Why go: 100% Cabernet wines; relaxed tastings; Corison Library Experience.
Recent HALL Cabernet vintages, whose grapes hail from most of the 16 Napa Valley subappellations, have received extremely high ratings from major critics. All tastings at HALL St. Helena‘s glass-walled art-filled hospitality center include at least one Cabernet, but three tastings delve progressively deeper into the varietal. The Art of Cabernet provides a good introduction; the Ultimate Cabernet Collector allows participants to get a sense of how vineyard and cellar factors impact the finished product. For a splurge, reserve space at the best-of-the-best Platinum Collection tasting of small-lot wines.
Why go: art indoors and out; top-rated wines from numerous appellations.
Joseph Phelps Vineyards
Few wineries transport guests to the state of serenity and unrestrained beauty that Joseph Phelps Vineyards does – and this occurs even before the first sip of the famous Cabernets and Insignia Bordeaux-style blend. As visitors pass under a wood-framed walkway to enjoy a Terrace Tasting, views open up of undulating rows of grapevines, robust oaks, and, west across the valley, the Mayacamas Mountains. The scene is as timelessly bucolic as the line-drawing depiction of it that graced Joseph Phelps labels in the 1970s and 1980s and still does on a few to this day.
Why go: legendary winery; terrace views; consistently superior Cabernet Sauvignon; Insignia blend.
Nickel & Nickel
Nickel & Nickel produces smoothly complex single-vineyard Cabernets using grapes grown in several Napa Valley subappellations. Some of the vineyards are on the valley floor, others on mountain terrain, in soils that vary from volcanic to alluvial. When the winery and its 1884 Sullenger House, a carefully restored Queen Anne–style dwelling, reopened in early June 2020, three tastings were offered by appointment only. All focus on top-rated single-vineyard Cabernets, with one exploring how terroir – soil, microclimate, and other factors – affects finished wines.
Read more about Nickel & Nickel.
Why go: genteel tasting experience; exceptional Cabernet.
Quixote Winery specializes in estate-grown Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon and Petite Sirah, crafted since 2016 in the silky, elegant style of winemaking chief Philippe Melka. The renowned consultant, famously discerning about his roster of clients, was attracted by Quixote’s singular 50-acre site, bordered by Shafer Vineyards, whose vines to the north supply grapes for its coveted Hillside Select Cabernet, and historic Stags’ Leap Winery to the south. Leisurely tastings, which always include Cabernet, take place in one of two light-filled spaces. The combination of aesthetic delights and natural beauty perfectly complements the refined wines Melka composes for this unique hideaway.
Why go: Stags Leap District Cabernet; influence of consultant Philippe Melka; architecturally significant winery and tasting room.
Sequoia Grove Winery
A modest winery that produces a half dozen single-vineyard Cabernets, Sequoia Grove Winery sits just east of Highway 29 in the Rutherford appellation. Redwoods shade its outdoor patio and tower over its tasting room, a renovated barn more than a century old. The current-release tasting surveys the winery’s whites and reds. Opt for the Single-Vineyard Wine Tasting to learn about the Cabernets. As a group, they illustrate the range of flavors the Napa Valley’s varied terrain makes possible. The wine made from grapes grown in the prestigious Stagecoach vineyard, high up in the Atlas Peak subappellation, for instance, has an austere personality (great for a steak). By contrast a “Rutherford Bench” wine, exhibiting that lower elevation’s classic chocolate-dust overtones, exhibits a smoother, almost delicate mouthfeel.
Read more about Sequoia Grove Winery.
Why go: Cabernets from Rutherford and other appellations; redwood-shaded outdoor patio.
Celebrated Silver Oak releases only two wines a year, both Cabernet-heavy Bordeaux blends. The grapes for the Napa Valley one, produced at the Oakville location, come from estate and other sources within the appellation. The other wine hails from Sonoma County’s Alexander Valley. At tastings you can ponder the idiosyncrasies of Silver Oak’s approach: the winery uses only American oak for its barrels, not French, as so many of its counterparts do, and after a wine’s time in barrel, usually at least two years, it spends well more than a year aging in bottle. The 2015 Napa Valley Cabernet (24 months in barrel, 20 months in bottle), for instance, wasn’t released until February 2020.
Why go: celebrated winery; singular winemaking approach; memorable vertical tasting experience.
St. Supéry Estate Vineyards & Winery
The St. Supéry Estate Vineyards & Winery, owned by the luxury brand Chanel, specializes in estate-grown single-vineyard Cabernets. At the Cabernet Sauvignon Collector Tasting, you can sample several, along with the Cabernet-heavy Élu blend of Bordeaux red varietals. One of the pleasures of this tasting is the chance to compare the soft and supple Cabernets from vines flourishing in the alluvial soils of the famed Rutherford Bench with the more structured and tannic offerings from the volcanic soils of the Howell Mountain appellation. The sense of place is palpable in all the wines.
Read more about St. Supéry.
Why go: supple Rutherford Bench, structured Howell Mountain Cabernets; reasonably priced Cabernet Sauvignon Collector Tasting.
The winery Warren Winiarski founded in 1970 merits a pilgrimage for its place in wine history alone. In a blind tasting in 1976 now known as the Judgment of Paris, French wine critics rated the 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon best in its category. The judges scored it ahead of four entries from revered Bordeaux producers and five other California wines. Winiarski’s triumph, coupled with Calistoga-based Chateau Montelena’s win for best Chardonnay, raised the Napa Valley’s profile worldwide. Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars makes separate Cabernets from its adjoining Stag’s Leap Vineyard (S.L.V.) and FAY Vineyard, along with Cask 23, a blend from the two. As of June 2020, the winery was only offering only the Estate Collection Tasting Flight of these three wines plus a Chardonnay. Both the stone-and-glass hospitality center and the shaded outdoor patios face the craggy Stags Leap Palisades.
Why go: historic operation; wines from fabled vineyards; Palisades view.
What to Do
This story originally appeared online in a slightly different form in 2017; it was fact-checked and updated in 2020. The lead photo is a detail of Viewscope (2006), by Alyson Shotz, at HALL St. Helena.